I'm not a parent. And in the last couple of years, I haven't had much interaction with children (although that will change as my nephew grows up). As I began reading Inside Out Girl, my first challenge was to try and see everything through a parent's eyes. I had to work hard not to dismiss Rachel as an over-the-top mother figure and not to roll my eyes at the behaviour of Olivia, Janie, and Dustin. This is a world I have never really inhabited—even my childhood was atypical, as I tended to get along with my parents more so than makes for an interesting work of literary fiction.
Thus, I first laud Tish Cohen for opening my eyes and making me empathize with parents, both those of "ordinary" teenagers and of children with special needs. It's a tough job. I knew that, but I haven't always comprehended it. Cohen manages to portray Rachel as obviously overprotective yet make it seem like this is the most natural reaction to the world. I can glimpse now the worry some parents experience when letting their children confront the world.
The motif of confrontation runs through all the various plots in Inside Out Girl. There's so much more to this book than the vicissitudes of life of Olivia Bean, a ten-year-old with non-verbal learning disorder. In addition to being a mother, Rachel is the owner of a parenting magazine that, owing to its refusal to change with the times, is about to go bankrupt. Olivia's father, Len, must deal with the fact that he has cancer. And Janey, Rachel's daughter, explores her sexuality and her crush on the girl next door. With these plots in place, Cohen creates dynamics that make Inside out Girl more than just a feel-good book about having a child with special needs. It's a story about a family, or two families that become one family, and how parenting—and life—can't be perfect.
Janie's subplot was one of my favourite parts. I loved the various episodes Janie experienced as the book progressed, from crossing out "guy" and replacing it with "goddess" in her Seventeen article to planning the perfect sleepover with Tabitha Carlisle (and we all knew how that was going to turn out). Sure, it was a little predictable. But Cohen gets us inside Janie's mind, lets us understand what she's going through—not just in regards to her sexuality, but her feelings about her mother, and about Len and Olivia. And as Janie grows, becomes more confident and a better person by discovering a desire to stand up for Olivia, we are more affected by this process than we would be had Cohen kept Janie closed off to us.
Were that the case for her brother, Dustin! If there is a neglected character in Inside Out Girl, he is it. Unlike his sister, we get very little access to Dustin's thoughts. He mostly serves as a stereotypical 12-year-old boy, into skating and irking his sister. His purpose is more to make Rachel worry about his obsession with attending a skate camp than any character development on his part. I view that as a missed opportunity; boys have problems too! It's not that Dustin remains disconnected from the dynamic. We understand how he feels about Len, at least initially; however, we're always more detached from Dustin than we are from Janie, Rachel, or Len.
I did get attached, too. Inside Out Girl played me like a well-tuned fiddle, and I found myself caring and my heart breaking even when some aspects of the plot were very contrived. The ending, overall, could have been better. It was both rushed in terms of pacing and unfulfilling. The attempt to abduct Tabitha, and Olivia's subsequent prevention of the act, was blatantly foreshadowed and not all that inspirational. Moreover, what happened to the Peytons? After emphasizing how much they wanted to adopt a child, Cohen just drops them as soon as Rachel offers to take Olivia. In her rush to arrive at what was obviously the ending of the book from the first page, Cohen skips over details that could have made the difference.
So it's not perfect, but it does come close. The characters grow and change. Rachel loosens up in her parenting and (of course) manages to save her magazine. Len and Rachel find happiness, and Olivia's future is assured, at least for now. Janie doesn't win Tabitha Carlisle, but that's probably for the best. And Olivia finally gets the birthday party she's been wanting all summer (it's not her birthday). Inside Out Girl is exactly what it needs to be: warm, quirky, and wonderful.